Protomartyr Aren’t Here to Save You, Man
Detroit’s finest return to fight false happiness with The Agent Intellect.
Detroit’s Protomartyr formed in 2010, but they didn’t spring into public consciousness until last year’s Under Color of Official Right, their second LP. Dark and gloomy, the band—vocalist Joe Casey, guitarist Greg Ahee, drummer Alex Leonard, and bassist Scott Davidson—and their edgy, angular, monochromatic songs are stoked by the horrors of the present and tempered by their devotion to the past. Though their songs are set within the context of this mean, modern world, Casey still resides in the house where he grew up. Notoriously shy as a child, in his new occupation the thirty-eight-year-old singer has, quite literally, found himself in the spotlight, which might be why the band’s songs bristle with—and positively thrive on—a sense of tortured unease. While that same sense of alienation courses through the band’s new album, The Agent Intellect, they also seem more confident and sure of themselves. Still, as Casey explains, all the insecurities that propelled them in the past still exist.
Did you feel any pressure recording The Agent Intellect given the hype that surrounded Under Color of Official Right? Were you worried about making this record?
Yeah. I’m always worried about doing anything. But the good thing is we started working on the songs for this one before the last one came out. That’s really kind of how we do it, although we haven’t done it this time. So we kind of already had a general idea of what we wanted to do before the reviews came in for the last one. So if the last one had gotten slammed, it wouldn’t have mattered, because we were already working on The Agent Intellect.
What would you say the overarching themes of this record are? There seems to be a more overt focus on religious imagery.
As far as picking themes out, it’s always afterwards, when we’ve got a collection of songs together, that I try to figure out what the fuck I’m talking about [laughs]. But the religious themes, I always chuck them in because they’re always very visual and they evoke a time in the past that definitely has sway over our current life. Where the last record was about external influences, this one’s more about the inside and your brain and what makes a person a person—and then what makes them not a person.
This record’s more about the inside and your brain and what makes a person a person—and then what makes them not a person.
By the last song, “Feast of Stephen,” you seem quite defeated. There’s this defiance that flows through the previous eleven songs, and then you get to this one and it’s like, “Actually, I’m tired of fighting, I’m giving up on all of this.” Is that a misinterpretation?
Well, we do have a lot of songs that are about giving up, but in a positive way—things will happen whether you want them to or not. And with “Feast of Stephen,” we threw that song together really quickly because somebody wanted a quote-unquote Christmas song from us, and we did a demo of that in two hours. But I like where that song fits in on the album because I think the song before, “Ellen,” kind of builds to this wonderful moment and we wouldn’t be Protomartyr if we didn’t kick that moment down a little bit right afterwards. It’s also a way to bring it back around full circle—the first song’s about the Devil growing up and this is a beginning again. The sun comes up and another day starts and you’re defeated all over again.
On “Why Does It Shake?” you talk about fake happiness being on the rise. Is that in reference to religion? Or capitalism? What was your intention there?
That’s another one I wrote and had to work backwards and ponder what it was about, but it’s less about religion than about how modern society—and this has being going on a long time—pushes the idea that you, yourself, are the center of the universe. Advertisers do that and pop songs nowadays do that and Facebook is about you, too. It’s all you you you you you, and I think nature and the world is kind of opposed to that. Also, [the idea of] “false happiness” is a little bit of dig at the song “Happy” by Pharrell Williams, because when we were coming up with it, that song was everywhere. It’s an innocuous song, but when it’s in every single commercial and they’re trying to sell you something and they’re equating their product with happiness, you start realizing it’s a false happiness.
You talk about people being the center of their own universe, and you’re known for being a shy person, so it’s kind of funny that now, being the singer of this band, the attention’s all on you. In a way, you’re the center of your own Protomartyr universe. Has that affected you in any way?
Fear and nervousness and shyness is what spurred me in the first place, so I’m glad that I don’t feel comfortable on a stage. I’m glad that I still wake up some nights and go “What the fuck am I doing singing in a band?”
Well, the way that I got the job in the band was that the other guys are just as retiring as I am, but at the time I was drunk enough to not notice that I was going to be the center of attention. I get it, but the great thing about it is that it really only affects you during the show or before it. When I come home, it doesn’t affect me in any way. My station in life has not improved at all from being a lead singer in a band. It’s just that people now ask me my opinions on things, or ask me what I’m about. And I like the fact that people are hearing what I have to say, and it’s nice, but what I do is, I read the bad reviews as well as the good ones to keep me grounded. But that fear and that nervousness and that shyness is what spurred me in the first place, so I’m glad that I don’t feel comfortable on a stage. I’m glad that I still wake up some nights and go “What the fuck am I doing singing in a band?” It’s the last thing I was planning on doing, so that kind of tension helps me out and I’m grateful for it.
You mentioned drinking just now. I know you were caught drunk driving a couple of years ago and stopped drinking as a result. Are you still off the bottle?
No. But I made the correct and right decision, with the help of the law, to never drink and drive again. The problem in Detroit is that it’s very easy to get into that habit, because you really have to drive everywhere—it’s the Motor City. I equate it to being an athlete or something. When I was in my early twenties, I was a champion drinker, but as you get older you start getting a little slower and you need to pump the brakes on that. It was a good wake-up call that perhaps I was probably drinking too much. But now I wouldn’t be driving and drinking, that’s for sure. Not to glorify it, but Detroit society would crumble if people weren’t allowed to have a drink and then drive, because no one would get anywhere or get anything done. But I understand why it’s demonized the way it is. You have to drive the message home. I’m a pretty smart guy and I kind of fooled myself into thinking that I’m a really good drunk driver. I’m glad that I was taken off the streets and slapped around a bit before it became something terrible.
Speaking of Detroit, do you still live in the same house?
Yeah, I’m still in the same house. It’s weird. I didn’t want to talk about Detroit as much on this record as I did the last one, but since the last one there’s been a lot of changes. There’s a lot of gentrification going on. We basically have a handful of billionaires who pretty much own Detroit. I used to joke years ago that if you want to know what Detroit’s like, you should watch Robocop, and it’s becoming kind of true, where these rich corporations want to get rid of the old Detroit and build this new Delta City. They’re doing that downtown right now, but it’s still a suffering city and you wonder if they’re just turning downtown into a rich man’s playground and ignoring the people who have lived here. It’s an interesting time and there’s a lot to talk about, but since I don’t necessarily think we’re a political-with-a-capital-P band I’m kind of seeing how it shakes out.
How do you feel about being older and in a band? I imagine if you start a band when you’re eighteen, it’s be easy to burn out early, so starting much later must have shifted your perspective somewhat.
Right—I started out burnt out! There’ve been a couple of shows where I’ve been the oldest person in the room, which is a little weird, but I think if I’d been in a band in my early twenties, I would have been constantly in pursuit of being cool or being perceived as cool. I feel pretty settled in who I am and, for better or worse, I think that helps me. Doing it older is fine, but you do feel a little awkward. You kind of feel like a failure in a sense, just by devoting your life to a young man’s game when you’re old. But the reward is that it doesn’t bother you. Life has already beaten you down, so any success or personal enjoyment is increased—you kind of know that you’re getting away with something. FL